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Should You Expect a Restaurant to Pick a Lobster for You on Request?

I ate lobster at restaurants a few times recently, and I was surprised to get an argument from a waitress at one place when I asked her if the kitchen would pick the lobster for me.

I know how to pick a lobster. I do it at home, and I'd expect to do it at an "in the rough" kind of seafood restaurant in New England. The issue is that it's messy, and if I am eating at a fine dining restaurant, I think it's reasonable for the kitchen to pick the lobster on request. That also assumes there's no lazy man's lobster or other dish I could choose if I didn't want to mess with the actual whole lobster.

Most places do it, no questions asked. At this once place over the summer, the waitress said the kitchen wouldn't do it because they're too busy. I pressed the issue, and she said she'd ask. They ended up picking it for me. I was very pleased.

At an ethnic restaurant recently, I got a lobster curry. While the lobster was served in the shell, the kitchen had cut it up in such a way that it was not a mess to pick and eat. This seemed reasonable to me too.

What do you think?

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  1. I've never had a lobster @ a "fine" dining place so I can't comment on that. The most I might expect from a restaurant is to crack the claws and split the tail if the lobster was large and thick shelled.

    1. I assume you're talking about a place with a lobster tank. I've never heard of having to pick it yourself, only that you can if you'd like. So the little old man in the wheelchair doesn't get lobster unless he gets up off his duff and picks it himself?

      4 Replies
        1. re: escondido123

          I think the OP means pick the meat out of the shell, not pick the lobster out of the tank, but I'm not sure.

          1. re: babette feasts

            Really?! Well I lived in New England and I've never heard of someone having the lobster taken apart for them. I was always happy if I didn't have to reach in and pull a live one out of the tank, aside from that, everyone I know has their own way of eating a lobster and most often didn't want someone else messing with that---just give each of us a nut cracker and a pick.

            1. re: escondido123

              That's my interpretation of both the OP and many of the responses below, but being from the west coast where we don't eat much lobster, I don't know. I was hoping the OP could clarify. The OP says "At an ethnic restaurant recently, I got a lobster curry. While the lobster was served in the shell, the kitchen had cut it up in such a way that it was not a mess to pick and eat." This suggests to me that picking is what you do to the meat after the bug has been cooked.

        2. I'm not the person to give an un-biased opinion...I think part of the lobster experience SHOULD be to pick it yourself, fancy restaurant or not. Actually, I never heard of a restaurant picking it. OK if you order a dish like lobster thermidor, well, it comes prepared with lobster meat, sans shell. You order a lobster dinner, you pick it.
          Just my opinion.
          Motosport, I find splitting the tail and cracking the claws almost a standard in many restaurants. When ordering a lobster, I prefer it whole, not cracked, split, sliced, diced, chopped, or nicked (I savor the juices coming out of the claws, legs, etc). I request this and the waitress will nod and say "no problem". What do I get? A split/cracked lobster.
          Now when the waiter nods and says "no problem", I ask "if it comes cracked or split, I will ask to replace it for another, is that OK?" Again, a confident "don't worry, you'll get it whole". About half the time though, the lobster still arrives cracked, the waiter doesn't even blink, the whole request forgotten. I point it out, he sighs and returns it to the kitchen.

          2 Replies
          1. re: porker

            Hell, I never GET the chance to eat lobster these days, but if I did, I think actually picking out my lobster is FUN!!
            (Of course, I live on the West Coast, where whole lobster is more of a novelty.)

            1. re: aurora50

              Ditto that, Aurora, and I'm in AZ, which isn't near either coast and therefore even more of a novelty. But if I did, I'd want to take it apart myself and wallow in its glory.

          2. I've never personally eaten lobster in a fine dining arena, and I do agree that it might be fun to pick your own, but I don't really see why the kitchen would have a problem just picking you out one. If you can call over a sommallier to pick out a wine, you can certainly have someone pick out your lobster as well.
            Lobster is a pain in the butt to crack in to, and I would expect it to be served in such a way that you could get to the meat without too much work. Again, if this is fine dining, you certainly shouldn't be expected to crack open that big bug yourself.

            1. I haven't dealt with this in more than 25 years, but yes, I should expect staff in a fine dining establishment to pick my lobster upon request.

              Usually, it was not the kitchen, but the captain and waiter who would pick and plate the lobster tableside.

              In 1985, I flew from NY to Ft' Lauderdale on a Saturday night to join my girlfriend and her family for a birthday celebration dinner at a dine restaurant. My plane was late and I arrived at the table about an hour after the stated time. The members of the party had all ordered 3lb lobsters. The captain and waiter had picked the lobsters and the bodies were sitting on a service table adjoining. I was seated placed a drink order and was asked for my order I told the waiter that I would have the already cooked and picked lobster bodies. After all, only the tails and claw meat had been served. All that knuckle and tube meat was still waiting to be eaten. I said that I didn't want to delay the party any longer.
              The captain accomodated me, but was heard muttering under his breath, that there went the lobster salad he'd planned to make for his end of shift dinner!

              As I said this was a long time ago, and true service has been diminishing in fine dining restaurants. Glasses are likely to be refrilled, not changed. You almost never see a server or busperson sweep the table with a crumber mid meal, and servers seem to try to insert themselves into the diner's evening.

              1. I figure if you're ordering whole lobster, the assumption is that you'll extract the meat yourself.

                You could always ask them to do it, and if they do, great -- but it's not something I'd expect them to do.

                1. At Oceana in New York City, a fine dining restaurant, the lobsters arrive at your table already broken down and the shell cracked so you can easily extract the meat. Cracking a lobster is messy business. At least in a fine dining setting, I'd expect the work already done so diners don't run the risk of accidental splatters on suits / dresses, not to mention accidentally getting bits of lobster / lobster juice on white table cloth is unsightly in that sort of setting.

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: Cheeryvisage

                    and so begs the question...is it all that common to serve lobster in a truly fine dining establishment?

                    Honest question, that -- when I've been in fine dining establishments, I really don''t feel like the fuss and bother of a lobster, so I don't know what the procedure really is...and I really don't want to wear a goofy plastic bib....so I've never ordered it.

                    If it's that much trouble, and that much potential problem....do they even serve it? If so, why?

                    1. re: sunshine842

                      During my Philly years, I occasionally enjoyed bibbing up at the Old Original Bookbinders and feasting on a 21/2 pounder with bubbly for a celebration, usually related to golf. Goofy? I do goofy!

                      A nice resto should pick a lobster on request, it's usually a sign that the diner lacks the familiarity or dexterity to do it themself. In a paper napkin seafood shack, yo-yo. (ya'on ya'own)

                      1. re: sunshine842

                        Lobster is certainly served in fine dining and high end establishments. Le Bernardin, Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, L2O, TRU, Everest, etc etc. At least one very high end place has a lobster dish as one of its famed dishes (which I have eaten) on which it "built its reputation". The way it is done is to serve lobster as a finished dish, plated, in the intended composed arrangement, with all shell and exoskeleton bits already removed, save for "decorative pieces" (if any!)

                        It's an excellent and tasty shellfish with a particular taste. Why shouldn't such places utilize such a protein? One does not have to do the bib-wearing, shell-cracking, finger-messing, table-splattering routine.

                        1. re: huiray

                          sorry, I was unclear.

                          Do many fine dining establishments serve lobster in the ****you remove the meat yourself**** format? I know many upscale restaurants **serve** lobster (and have ordered such dishes myself in upscale restaurants), but as you stated -- in something else, or plated without the shell....

                            1. re: huiray

                              that was kind of my point...that we're having a discussion about a situation that doesn't really raise its head all that often...

                              1. re: sunshine842

                                Look, all I know is -
                                I love to have a lobster served, all inact, looking at me in all its glory.
                                I don't want anyone to touch it in any way, except for cooking it.
                                I love to tear it apart, and eat every part of it that I can eat.
                                If you want it that way (other than what's described), tell them.
                                Otherwise, tell them how you want it, if you want it other than how it's described on the menu.
                                That's the way I see it.

                                1. re: aurora50

                                  Why are you jumping all over me? Your posts reads like I've committed some crime by asking about the frequency of whole lobster in fine-dining establishments.

                                  If you'd read the side discussion here between huiray and me, you'd see that we're agreeing that the kerfuffle over "whole lobster in a white-tablecloth restaurant" is sort of a moot point because it's not all that common an occurrence. In white-tablecloth establishments, lobster usually shows up out of the shell and in some other dish.

                                  I eat lobster -- Caribbean and Maine, whole and picked...however it shows up on my plate. But whole, usually at a newspaper-on-the-table type joint.

                                  1. re: sunshine842

                                    Wow, sunshine, I'm not jumping on you at all!
                                    I've never even brought you up!
                                    I'm just talking about how I prefer my lobster.
                                    All the Best.

                                    1. re: aurora50

                                      okay -- we've all done it -- but you hit "reply" after my comment, which implies that you were replying specifically to me.

                                      No harm, no foul -- we all do it from time to time.

                                      (I like it because it indicates to whom the reply is intended...but it's soooo very easy to reply in the wrong place)

                    2. I've eaten lobster dozens of times in Chinese restaurants in the Greater Toronto area, and the only time they've requested we pick the beast is at a restaurant called O-Mei, and only when you order their special "lobster four ways". When six of us ordered it, we chose a 5 lb monster; when we were only four, we settled on a 3 lb selection. But when you just order lobster, they always pick it for you (unless you request to choose one from the tank), and it is always served cut up and cracked. Further, every Chinese person I know would be outraged if they were only served the tail and claws; in my wife's family, there's always a polite fight over who gets to suck the head, and the tiny legs and knuckles are devoured with as much relish as the bigger pieces.

                      Now, I've eaten lobster in Maine (Harraseeket Lunch, IIRC), where you get a whole boiled lobster in all its glory, and you do the rest of the work. That's fine with me too; cracking and twisting and pulling while sitting by the sea is part of the fun.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: FrankD

                        Yes, that is the norm in Chinese restaurants I've gone to also - meaning the lobster is chopped up, shell cracked, pieces/flesh extractable just with chopsticks & "mouth action". Besides, lobster is never served "plain boiled", as far as I know, but always cooked in some manner such as in a stir-fry with scallions & ginger (a classic combination). I've never seen an intact whole lobster served in a Chinese restaurant. Doesn't mean there isn't one which does, just that I've never experienced such a place, whether in the West or in the East (East/SE Asia).

                      2. OK for the record and for whoever adds to this thread,

                        "picking" a lobster does not refer to "choosing" the lobster

                        it means to pick the meat and other edibles out of the critter.

                        7 Replies
                        1. re: porker

                          Must be a regional usage.

                          Never heard that sense of "pick." That is, have not seen "pick" used as an intransitive verb with that specific meaning.

                          1. re: Bada Bing

                            definitely widely used in New England.

                            There are places that have Lazy Lobster, which means pre picked. But they never give you all the meat from the little legs!

                            1. re: magiesmom

                              That explains it- I haven't lived on the east coast since I was two. Lobster here is a rare treat, good fresh lobster even more so. I would prefer to cook and eat my good fresh lobster at home in a sloppy and sensual manner with a towel tucked into the neck of my shirt and not really worrying about making a mess or looking bad at a fine dining place.

                            2. re: Bada Bing

                              Transitive, just a different meaning of the verb.

                              1. re: Veggo

                                Whoa, first I read
                                Transvestite, just a different meaning of dressing.

                                1. re: Veggo

                                  Yeah, you're right about transitive. I was distracted in that the familiar usage to me would never be "pick the lobster" but rather "pick the meat from the lobster."

                                2. re: Bada Bing

                                  The implement sold for the task is called a "lobster pick." Often come in a pair with a shell cracker.

                              2. I was also confused at first about the term "picking" and first didn't understand why a restaurant wouldn't choose a lobster for someone. And I live in Maryland, where we "pick" crabs and pig. I had a good laugh reading this thread when it dawned on me how odd regional terms can be. I've just never heard of "picking" lobster! Can't comment on the OP's question, since I've never ordered whole lobster at a fine dining type place.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: Terrie H.

                                  Peculiar how you pick crabs, but never heard of picking a lobster. I didn't realise it was a regional thing.

                                  1. re: Terrie H.

                                    "I was also confused at first about the term "picking" and first didn't understand why a restaurant wouldn't choose a lobster for someone. "

                                  2. If, as is suggested, you mean to separate the meat from the shell, then yes they should upon request-provided you are willing to pay an extra fee. It takes a lot of time to properly "pick" a lobster and you should not expect it to be done for free. Even if you are paying $25+ a pound in a fine dining establishment.

                                    1. I have been to many "fine dining" establishments in New England where they serve a whole lobster. Yes, they may crack the claws and but the tail, but not always, but I've never heard of having the meat extracted for you. For those who don't want that experience, there is often the choice of a thermidor or other preparation where the meat is taken out of the shell prior to final preparation. Often these are steak/seafood places rather than chic little bistros, places like Capital Grille for instance.

                                      10 Replies
                                      1. re: escondido123

                                        Also depends on what you mean by a "fine dining" place.
                                        p.s. Linen tablecloths and napkins does not define one, although these are likely to be present.

                                        ...and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

                                        p.s.2: A bistro is not a fine dining place to me.
                                        p.s.3: A place where you have to extract your own lobster meat (and certainly any place where you have to crack said lobster yourself) is unlikely to be a fine dining place to me.
                                        p.s.4: Other terms like "upscale" or "higher end" etc - all also dependent on one's perception - are terms I might use for a place that does not quite attain the level of "fine dining" for me.


                                        1. re: huiray

                                          Capital Grille has dark wood, crystal, sliver, muted lighting, aged beef, wonderful cocktails and dinner for two easily topping $200, if that's not the definition of fine dining than I have no idea what fine dining is. As to bistros not being fine dining, I think of places like the Bistro du Midi in Boston or French classics like D'Chez Eux and Benoit as fine dining in appearance, service and superior cooking.

                                          1. re: escondido123

                                            i think of a bistro as, like a little neighborhood restaurant or pub that serves good food, definitely informal & below fine dining and how you describe capital grille. but i do think that sometimes a bistro in the u.s. is a different animal than what a bistro is in france.

                                            merriam-webster: bistro

                                            : a small or unpretentious restaurant
                                            a : a small bar or tavern

                                            1. re: soupkitten

                                              If you go online for Benoit or D'Chez Eux you will find menus with appetizers easily passing $25 and a level of sophistication in service you generally don't find in the US. I have never had finer dining in my life--meals lasting at least 3 hours-- and the final cost certainly reflected that.

                                              1. re: escondido123

                                                i don't doubt you at all with these specific examples, but generally a bistro is very informal, just sayin. the word kind of brings to mind a little local watering hole that also serves food, rather than a place with service captains, tablecloths and proper stemware. tavern, trattoria, pub, cafe, bistro. . .to me these are describing the same small local type of establishment, where folks just "come as they are" and have a meal or some drinks in congenial surroundings at a moderate price.

                                                i suppose--and i honestly have no clue here, and would be interested to know-- that it could be a case where the word changes meaning when it jumps across the pond, like "entree" does. . . could this be a regional thing? do folks in some areas consider "bistro" a synonym for a fine dining restaurant?

                                                1. re: escondido123

                                                  Bistro food is my favorite, but "fine dining" is a term more typically used for haute cuisine and formal service in elegant surroundings. Bistros are more homey and casual, both the food and the atmosphere, which is why they're my favorite places to eat.

                                                  1. re: mcf

                                                    Although I know we're all off topic here, I never really use the term "fine dining" because it tells me nothing about the place...are other places "crummy" dining? I judge a place by the quality of the food, service and price--if they are all of "high" quality then that would be my definition of "fine" dining. I have a book titled "Paris Bistro Cooking" bu Linda Dannenberg which covers from inexpensive holes in the wall to institutions like Benoit. I think on the East Coast particularly, bistro at its best means a high level of cooking and service in a less formal atmosphere--but that too may vary based upon what each of us thinks "formal" means. PS My god daughter has been a waitress for years and she uses the term "fine dining" to mean any place where customers can rack up a big bill at the dinner table, translating into good tips.

                                                    1. re: escondido123

                                                      yeah, getting off topic!
                                                      i think of fine dining as a place i probably would change out of my normal, uh. . . super-rad, hip and stylish attire to go to. like, i would definitely probably take off my plastic spider ring, and put on my very best head-bandanna, freshly pressed!

                                                      1. re: soupkitten

                                                        Guessing that spider ring kept everyone from messing with your lobster :)

                                                      2. re: escondido123

                                                        I never use the term, either, but I know it's not the places I choose to frequent most of the time and that chances are I'll be wearing something less comfortable when I do. :-)

                                          2. since I get really food territorial in a dog type of way I want to be sure every last morsel (including tomalley) is extracted, so I prefer to do it myself. hey I don't live anywhere near the sources so it's a rare and special treat. but if I WERE to request it picked (ain't gonna happen) I would expect the request to be honored.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: hill food

                                              This is exactly the way I feel, hill food.
                                              If I AM lucky enough to get a whole lobster (my preferred way of eating it), I absolutely revel in tearing the thing apart, cracking, and sucking out every last part of it.
                                              (Wow, sounds violent,doesn't it?)
                                              ; )

                                            2. My honest opinion is that the only way to eat a lobster is at home over newspapers, unless it's part of a unique dish created by a chef and is outside the shell, not whole or cut up pieces. I am never going to pay someone to cook a simple lobster when it's so easy to do at home, and the markup in restaurants is insane. I'd rather let them cook me something that involves actual cooking skill and effort that I might not do myself. I love the process of picking every single part of a lobster clean, but it's a savage affair, best undertaken in my backyard. Just one woman's opinion. :-)

                                              2 Replies
                                              1. re: mcf

                                                I'm in the same camp. The only exception is if I'm in New England and can visit a lobster pier (iirc thats what they called them in Maine).

                                                1. re: meatn3

                                                  Absolutely; my favorite way to have lobster is cooked in a boiling vat of sea water in Maine, as I did last week. :-)

                                              2. Being born and raised in New England, I would never order lobster at a fancy restaurant. I go to a lobster pound and tear that thing apart on my own. I do always ask for a male lobster....that's as high maintenance as I get :)

                                                1. I honestly can't say I've seen many boiled/steamed lobster entrees in a fine dining restaurant...it's just a messy job by nature and the thought of wearing a bib over a cocktail dress strikes me as ridiculous.

                                                  I see no harm in asking if the kitchen can crack it for you but such a request should be made when ordering. If you don't get the answer you want, order something else.

                                                  As far as semantics, this New Englander has never heard of "picking" a lobster either; the only term for removing lobster meat for the shell would be "cracking".

                                                  16 Replies
                                                  1. re: LeoLioness

                                                    The only time I've ever heard it in New England is when they point to the tank and say "would you like to pick your own lobster."

                                                    1. re: escondido123

                                                      As a plastic surgeon can show one an album of proboscis photos, and ask if you would like to pick your own nose.

                                                      1. re: escondido123

                                                        an establishment that has a lobster tank visble to the patrons and allows patrons to choose the lobster is not typical; of the 'fine dining' establishments discussed downthread.

                                                        the art of fine dining has disappeared from most of America. Until the early 60s it could be found in the hotel dining room of most cities, as well as private clubs, and expensive restaurants. At a time when a full course meal was $2.50 in most restaurants fine dining restaurants might be $4-5 and middle class families lived on $7,000 per year.

                                                        The level of service (and elegance) can not be found in a chain, there is no serving class in the USA anymore. Just because some restaurant is expensive (and someone down thread talked about Capital Grille) doesn't mean it is fine dining. Wonderfully prepared food at high prices with an extensive beverage list does not equal fine dining.

                                                        Gone are the days of tuxedoed waiters, a captain (in addition to a Maitre D) and seamless elegant service.
                                                        One is lucky ti receive a separate fork for salad in many places, and it probably will be just another dinner fork, not a salad fork. Take a look at a silver pattern book and see the different implements available to eat a meal and ask why that $150 meal comes with just 4 pieces of stainless flatware?
                                                        Fine dining servers were true professionals who would not be surprised to be asked to pick a lobster, in fact they might ask if the patron wanted it picked befire bringing the plate to the table.
                                                        Unfortunately (for the sake of this discussion, not casting aspersions) most of the posters are either too young to have experienced true fine dining (as opposed to the current relaxed styles) or were not wealthy enough to partake of fine dining in its heyday.

                                                        I have been served Picked lobster at the Union League Clubs in New Haven and Philadelphia, the Yale Club in New York, and even the Missouri Club in St. Louis as recently as 10 years ago. In the 70s I has Picked Lobster at both Shoyer's and Old Original Bookbinders in Philadelphia, and in the 60s in the Dining Room of the Taft Hotel in New Haven.

                                                        But times change and service levels change as well. Now if only I could find a real Nesselrode Pie for dessert.

                                                        1. re: bagelman01

                                                          It's also possible that like most things, fine dining has evolved over time and adapted to modern times.

                                                          1. re: bagelman01

                                                            When I think of fine dining restaurants, places like La Grenouille, Le Bernardin, Jean Georges, Per Se, Daniel, etc. come to mind (all NYC, since this is where I live). All of them employ tuxedo(ish)-ed servers, a team of wait staff for each table, separate set of silverware for each course, tables cleared of crumbs right before the dessert course(s), table-side services like sauce pouring, etc, and yes, pulled off elegantly and seamlessly (in my opinion, at least).

                                                            These are some of the most formal and "fine" restaurants I can think of in the city. I wonder how they compare to the grand establishments of the old times. Do these places meet your standard of fine dining?

                                                            1. re: Cheeryvisage

                                                              Having eaten at the first three on your list, I would say they are fine dining establishments. However they do not have whole Maine lobster on thie running menus. If they offered it as a special, I'd expect they would pick it without any hesitation.

                                                              1. re: bagelman01

                                                                Absolutely, I agree with you regarding serving whole lobster at fine dining restaurants. I can't imagine their not serving it already picked. Given the theatrical flair fine dining establishments are wont to employ, it's also likely they'll present the cooked (or even live) lobster to you whole first, then take it away to be broken down, cracked, plated, and finally set it down before you, all ready to eat. I know that Marea does this with their whole fish at the very least. La Grenouille does too, I think.

                                                              2. re: Cheeryvisage

                                                                ,As an "old timer" (2 years older than bagelman) I share the loss of the grand establishments. Manhattan hosts at least five you like near where you live. The 10021 zip code and nearby is a privileged address. Elsewhere, grand establishments are a disappearing breed. To his list, I would add the Chilton Club and Union Club in Boston, the Mid-Ocean Club in Bermuda, Indian Creek Club in Miami, the Petroleum Club and Green Gables in Denver, and the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Some old timers like Le Bec Fin in Philly and Tavern on the Green are twisting in the wind, and the list shortens. Enjoy your enduring local pleasures.

                                                          2. re: LeoLioness

                                                            I'm born in and still live in New England, and our family used the term picked to refer to lobster served out of the shell.

                                                            In fact many menus will have an explanation of Lobster Newberg (sp) or thermador as picked lobster meat in xxxx sauce baked/broiled in a casserole dish.

                                                            And this New Englander has only heard and would assume that a cracked lobster has had the shell broken so the diner could easilly remove the meat from the claws and knuckles.

                                                            1. re: LeoLioness

                                                              I grew up down the road from bagelman, and our pantry had a drawer filled with lobster crackers and picks. The picks are slender tools with a slightly hooked point, and closely resemble the tool your dentist uses to clean your teeth. Familiar?

                                                              1. re: Veggo

                                                                It sat in the drawer right next to the bright red handled shrimp deveiner..............................
                                                                Not only did the pick have a slight hoo, but it was slightly broad and flat near the end.

                                                                1. re: bagelman01

                                                                  Um, we have them here for sale on the West Coast, also.
                                                                  And, no, when I've cooked lobsters here at home, I've rarely had to use them.

                                                                  1. re: bagelman01

                                                                    OMG- my mom had that shrimp deveiner!

                                                                  2. re: Veggo

                                                                    familiar Veggo? - absolutely, in the 1980's Midwest it was perfect for scraping resin out of a pipe.

                                                                    1. re: hill food

                                                                      80's Midwest, hill food, I suppose that was their highest and best use!

                                                                      1. re: Veggo

                                                                        I would use it for other purposes today...

                                                                2. I can't imagine that you'd ever be served a whole lobster in its shell at a fine dining establishment. Places that serve whole lobsters expect that their patrons will dig in and do the messy business with their hands. I'm curious as to where you've dined where the staff is willing to perform this painstaking and lengthy procedure (at no additional charge, presumably)

                                                                  1. Only if it were priced accordingly (let's say, 2x the price of the next highest priced entree). If the service is not built into the price, I'd not expect it.